LA JOLLA, Calif. — The National Watermelon Association wrapped up its 97th annual convention Feb. 27 with the installation of a new president, Jim Schmidt, co-owner of SunTerra Produce Traders Inc., La Quinta, Calif., and the crowning of Whitney Conner of Abbeville, Ga., as the association’s 2011 watermelon queen.
Schmidt succeeds Brent Harrison, co-owner of Al Harrison Co., Nogales, Ariz., as president of the Lakeland, Fla.-based association.
The U.S. watermelon industry faces numerous challenges, Mark Arney, executive director of the National Watermelon Promotion Board, Orlando, Fla., told a general session. Among them: separating watermelons from the melon category, food safety and weather issues.
“Unlike most other commodities, watermelon has a very positive story to tell,” Arney said.
Emerging discoveries of the product’s health benefits rank high on the list, he said.
“Watermelon has higher concentrations of the antioxidant lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable,” Arney said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture OK’d the industry’s use of new findings that due to its citrulline content, consumption of watermelon can help maintain cardiovascular function, he said.
Taste and value also rank high among the commodity’s attributes.
A study by the Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., found watermelon ranks as the best value in the melon category, Arney said.
The convention’s concluding general session featured a panel discussion among agricultural industry leaders: Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.; Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland; and Robert Keeney, deputy administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Bob Morrissey, executive director of the association, was the moderator.
Nassif and Stuart shared concerns about the failure of Congress to address immigration reform.
“Grower-shippers are in a horrible position when it comes to the work force,” Stuart said. “We must figure out both a short-term and a long-term solution to ensure that our producers have a stable work force.”
A major roadblock, Nassif said, is that political leaders are already focused on winning the 2012 elections, adding that elected officials should put aside their differences for the sake of growers.
“Let’s for the short term put the pathway to citizenship on hold,” Nassif said. “Let’s solve the labor problem first.”
Keeney urged attendees to become more proactive in the wake of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“The tasks mandated in the new law represent the greatest challenge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ever had — and those are the FDA’s words,” Keeney said. “It’s very important for all of you to work closely with us where you see issues, where you see opportunities for us to be better than we are today or to do something differently.”
His agency is working closely with the FDA, he said, and while AMS is not a food safety agency, “we do have expertise in a number of areas because we have boots on the ground.”